All words and photos: Tony Pijar
My friends and I had moved on from the 7th to the 8th grade and, of course, the summer was upon us. To celebrate, we all sent to the beach to play football and swim. And back in the day, you never went anywhere without your ‘Boom-Box’, and my friend Ron had a giant one that was excruciatingly loud. Anyhow, we always listened to WPLR, a popular station out of New Haven, CT. As we settled in we heard this insane, otherworldly guitar solo, which led into a hyped-up version of The Kinks’ ‘You really got me’. Who was this band? Who was this guitarist? My friends and I lived for music. We loved UFO, Scorpions, Kiss, Black Sabbath, Rainbow, Pat Travers, Molly Hatchet, Skynyrd, etc. But, we had never heard anything like this before! At the conclusion of the track, the DJ came on and said that this was a brand new band out of California called Van Halen.
Van Halen’s first album was released on February 10, 1978, but, if I recall, didn’t get much airplay until a few months later. By the summer, the band’s popularity soared. The aforesaid ‘You really got me’ and ‘Jamie’s Cryin’ were in heavy rotation on most FM stations. The album, as a whole, was the perfect musical landscape for the summer. On September 10, 1978, my brother and I went to see Black Sabbath on their ‘Never say Die’ Tour and the mighty Van Halen opened. To see this fledging group in full flight was a sight to behold. Eddie, with his black and white ‘Frankenstein’ guitar, was simply amazing. Imagine the songs on that first album blasting through an intensely powerful PA. David had his Jim ‘Dandy’ Mangrum’s look and moves down pact. And the rhythm section of Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen reverberated right down to the bone. They opened with the manic ‘On Fire’ and ‘I’m the One’. The former a blistering statement, while the latter had that cool, vocal-only breakdown on the back-end of the song that saw Alex step out from behind his massive drum-kit to join Michael, David and Eddie at the mic that was center-stage. The anthemic ‘Ain’t talkin; bout Love’ had the sold-out New Haven Coliseum on its collective feet screaming out ‘Hey Hey Hey’ with fists punching the air in unison. And then came that guitar solo. Hearing ‘Eruption’ live was orgasmic. And that just left Van Halen’s amped-up version of The Kinks’ ‘You Really got me’. After that metallic onslaught, an old and lethargic Black Sabbath limped onto the stage and died a slow death – all at the hands of the great upstarts Van Halen. Just a few months later, ‘Van Halen II” (March 23, 1979) came out and the band’s first headlining world tour commenced.
The ‘World Vacation Tour’ started in Fresno in late March, and we caught them in New Haven on August 12, 1979. Seeing VH in the heat of the summer fit like a glove. The insanity of the opening songs ‘Light up the Sky’ and ‘Somebody get me a Doctor’ caused mass hysteria. This time around, Eddie had his blue and yellow ‘Frankenstein’ guitar. David, far more comfortable as a headliner, was far more verbose and had a plethora of those crazy stories and one-liners. The band was really tight as they blew through the likes of ‘Runnin’ with the Devil’, ‘On Fire’, ‘You’re no Good’, ‘Beautiful Girls’, and Outta Love Again’. This time around, Eddie’s solo started with the acoustic ‘Spanish Fly’ before blowing our ears out with an elongated ‘Eruption’. And just like that, we’re into the ultra-heavy ‘DOA’. VH encored with a frenzied ‘Bottoms up’. Definitely one of my most memorable shows ever.
1980 brought us my favorite VH record ‘Women and Children First’. We caught them, again, in New Haven on May 9. Now this was a party. Like the album, the ‘World Invasion Tour’ shows were loose and, at times, a bit sloppy, but we didn’t care. The set opened with the ferocious ‘Romeo’s Delight’ and followed with the equally jet-fueled ‘Bottoms up’. I remember half-way through ‘Everybody wants some’, David commanded the band to stop playing. He walked over to Eddie, pointed to his blood-shot eyes, and said, ‘If you think I’m fu**ed up, take a look at this motherfu**er’s eyes’. And then right on cue, the band picked up where they left off. Pure genius. At the conclusion of the set, which closed with yet another crazed ‘Ain’t talkin’ bout Love’, the sold-out New Haven Coliseum wanted…demanded more. Out from stage right strolled David with an acoustic guitar covered with pink fur. He told a story about ice cream that was, of course, filled with sexual innuendo. He, then, started picking the opening notes to ‘Ice Cream man’. Simply brilliant. We went nuts. And then came the explosion when the rest of the guys joined in for an over-the-top electrifying finish. ‘You really got me’ was the final encore with Eddie killing on his red and white ‘Frankenstein’ Explorer.
The band’s next record, ‘Fair Warning’, was released on April 29, 1981. July 16, 1981 saw the mighty VH come back to New Haven on the ‘WDFA Tour’ (I can assume that the acronym means ‘We Don’t F**K Around’). Reaching back to their original opener, VH was in high-gear from the onset with ‘On Fire’. We got ‘Hear about it later’, ‘Sinner’s Swing’, ‘So this is Love’, Sunday Afternoon in the Park’, and ‘Mean Street’ from the new opus, along with favorites such as ‘Romeo’s Delight’, ‘You Really got me’, ‘Runnin’ with the Devil’, and ‘Everybody wants Some’. The backdrop was a giant, menacing looking cityscape with the band’s trademark stack of amps creating a massive wall. Unlike the last tour, the band and show were really tight. We never made it to the ‘Diver Down’ and ‘1984’ tours.
Since we were never fans of ‘Van Hagar’, we never attended any of those tours with Sammy. It wasn’t until the ‘A Different Kind of Truth Tour’, with David back in the fold, did we rekindle our relationship with VH. ‘A Different Kind of Truth’ was pure, classic VH with tracks such as ‘China Town’, ‘Bullethead’, ‘Stay Frosty’ and ‘Beats Workin’ all coming on like classic VH. After the release of that record on February 7, 2012, the band hit the road and we caught them at Mohegan Sun on March 3, 2012. Sadly, Michael Anthony was not invited back into the fold, but Eddie’s son Wolfgang did an admirable job in his place. When Eddie ran onto the stage and starting playing the opening riff to ‘Unchained’, we knew this was going to be a special night – and it was. While this reintroduction to the David-era VH was great, it paled in comparison to their 2015 North American Tour, which would prove to be their last ever.
The 2015 tour was in support of VH’s first David-era live album called ‘Tokyo Dome: Live in Concert’. We caught them in Hartford, CT. on August 11, 2015. This was akin to a class reunion. People were there that I hadn’t seen since high school and college. There was a party vibe in the air that I hadn’t felt since the ‘Fair Warning Tour’. The setlist was 25-deep and, apparently, put together by Wolfgang. How’s this for an opening foursome: ‘Light up the Sky’, ‘Runnin’ with the Devil’, ‘Romeo delight’, and ‘Everybody wants some’. Talk about setting a proper tone for the night. David and Eddie looked happy, Wolfgang, now fully entrenched, was locked in, and Alex was spot-on, and will never get the recognition he’s due as a great drummer. VH raided the David-era back catalogue and played some deep cuts; ‘Women in Love’, ‘In a Simple Rhyme’, ‘Dirty Movies’, etc. David still had the moves and, surprisingly, his voice was quite good as well. Wolfgang and Alex pummeled, while the master was his usual brilliant self. I’ll never forget his guitar solo, which took snippets from ‘Mean Street’, ‘Little Guitars’, ‘Spanish Fly’ and, of course, ‘Eruption’. and meshed them together; totally jaw-dropping. And how’s this for the encores: ‘You Really got me’, ‘Panama’, and ‘Jump’. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the last time we’d ever see the band perform in the live setting.
It’s no secret that David and Eddie had, at times, a contentious and acrimonious relationship. But, that’s true of rock’s greatest duo-composers. Lennon and McCartney, Page and Plant, Jagger and Richards, Daltery and Townsend, and many others didn’t have the best of relationships, but out of that came some of the greatest music the world has ever seen. I remember recalling where Eddie said; ‘I’m a musician and Roth is a rock-star’. But, they needed each other.
When Eddie, unexpectedly, passed away on October 6, 2020 my heart sank; a great talent whose life ended way too soon. Simply put, Eddie’s influence and Van Halen’s music will never die.